May is Mental Health Awareness Month

I was 14 years old when I was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

I remember the day well, even though it’s been 16 years ago. I was sitting in my family doctor’s office, and both of my parents were there. Something was obviously wrong with me, and no one really knew what to do about it. I was often physically ill, and I would go days without wanting to do anything other than sleep.

I was missing days upon days of school, and I was always exhausted. I was usually a great student, but I was falling behind in my courses. In fact, I was falling behind in everything, and I was quickly descending into the vice-like grip of depression.

I wish I could tell you that the doctor found the root cause that day and that he prescribed a miracle drug that cured all of the symptoms. That isn’t the case. He gave me a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication, and, after a while, the edge was gone. I was still anxious and depressed, but I could again see the light.

However, to this day, I struggle with the black cloud of depression and the pain that is anxiety. I have a great life now, and I had a great life when I was first diagnosed. Sure, I was dealing with the usual school bullying (and, of course, I still deal with bullies these days, too), but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. My parents were fantastic, and I had a stable home and even a supportive church family.

So, why the depression? Why the anxiety? I’ve spent years – and thousands of dollars on doctors and prescription drugs – trying to figure out the answer to that question. It turns out there’s no easy answer, and there’s definitely no easy solution.

A few years back, I was finally diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is the “trendy” mental health disorder everyone likes to say they have when they prefer a tidy house or tidy car. While I do have some of those compulsions, I am on the side of OCD where you obsess with worry over things. It keeps me up at night, and it burns holes in my stomach. It strangles my energy and can be so overwhelming at times that I struggle to get air into my lungs.

Mental illnesses are invisible diseases, and they are like cancers in the sense that they spread and consume you over time. Unfortunately, some people do not survive these illnesses. I’m fortunate enough to have a strong support system, and I have been vocal enough about my struggles to where my friends and family members can see when I’m drowning and rescue me. I’m fortunate enough to have health insurance and the ability to see a doctor and have medication that dulls the most severe of the effects.

Millions of Americans aren’t so lucky. The cost of mental health care is tremendous, and the stigma associated with these illnesses and seeking treatment is strong. As a result, many people choose to dull their pain with alcohol or illicit drugs, and, when the pain becomes too great, they can be lost to suicide. They become another statistic and a casualty of a broken health care system.

May is recognized in the United States as Mental Health Awareness Month, but it’s nothing to celebrate. Instead, it’s a time for us to recognize that nearly one in five Americans live with a mental illness, and estimates suggest that only half of people with mental illnesses receive treatment. In other words, we’re losing the war against these illnesses.

This year, the situation is even more dire. Experts have warned that a national mental health crisis, brought on by the stress levels associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, is looming. Dr. Jonathan Porteus, a psychologist who oversees the crisis and suicide hotlines in Sacramento, California, recently told WebMD that “…our society is definitely in a collective state of trauma,” and there will be significant psychological fallout.

So, how do we reduce the fallout and start winning some of the battles against mental illness? First, we must challenge – and defeat – the stigmas associated with such illnesses and their treatments. According to a study in World Psychiatry, “…many people with serious mental illnesses are challenged doubly” due to fighting both the symptoms of the disease and the stereotypes associated with it.

These stigmas can be diminished through proper community education efforts and interpersonal contact with those who suffer from mental illnesses, said the study. It’s important to realize that people who suffer from these illnesses are your friends and your neighbors, and some of them could be suffering in silence. Being an open resource to them can make you an invaluable and trusted ally in this fight.

Second, we must allocate proper resources to this fight. As it currently stands, our health care system is broken. Many people who need care can’t afford it, and that’s disgraceful for a country of our size and stature. We should immediately take steps to reform the system and make it more affordable for all. Affordable health care shouldn’t be a political issue; instead, it should be a human right.

Finally, we can all strive to be a positive force in someone else’s life. I was telling someone the other day that it seems pointless to smile at someone if you’re wearing a mask (thanks again, COVID-19), but I was quickly reminded that people can see your smile through your eyes. Smile at someone. Offer them an encouraging word. You’ll never know how far that goes when someone’s having a rough time.

We must stand together against mental illness, and not just during Mental Health Awareness Month. Together, we can create real change, and we can make things better for generations to come.

Finding a motto for 2020 in a strange place

About a week ago, I was tossing out old papers on my desk when I stumbled across my 2020 planner, which has to be the most useless invention in the world at this point.

Each year, I buy a paper planner and promise to use it, and it never turns out well. I usually abandon it a few weeks into the year, but I was particularly proud of this year’s planner and had been doing a good job with it. I paid too much for it, and the retailer even embossed my initials on the front cover.

The thing came with stickers and everything, and I was a planning fool for a while. And, then, you know … COVID-19 hit.

Anyway, I flipped back to the front of the planner and read my New Year’s resolutions, which filled me with a strong sense of frustration. The new year – and the new decade – had started with such promise, and now it was already May, two months into the time period I’ll refer to from now on as “The Age of Coronavirus.”

It feels like five years ago, but yes, the virus made its first impact in Mississippi on March 11. If you’ll remember, the first case was found in none other than Forrest County, and yours truly has done nothing but cover the virus since then. My planner, with its dumb stickers and optimistic phrases on each page, was getting good use as a paperweight, and those resolutions, scribbled with such passion in December, had long since been forgotten.

I was throwing the planner away when a sheaf of papers fell from it and hit the floor.

“It’s mocking me by shedding all over the house now,” I thought as I tossed the planner in the garbage can and picked up the scattered papers.

They were meeting notes from a webinar I’d attended earlier in the year. I barely remembered the event, and I quickly reviewed the notes to see if there was anything worth keeping.

In the margins of one of the pages, I’d written – and underlined – this phrase: “Don’t be so hard on yourself. No one else knows what they’re doing, either.”

I don’t recall if this is something one of the speakers said or if it was just an observation I’d made, but my goodness, what a fitting statement for 2020, I thought. I grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the note out to keep. I may frame it as my motto for the rest of the year.

Indeed, we’re living in unprecedented times, and we should all strive to be easier on ourselves and on others. I was talking with a co-worker earlier this week about how everyone in our society seems to be on edge and full of anxiety. COVID-19 has disrupted our daily routines and our safety nets, and it has us living in fear of the unknown. If we’re not careful, that fear can manifest itself into anger and even depression.

So, be kinder to yourself and to others. Don’t worry about those New Year’s resolutions, and don’t let an idle 2020 planner bother you. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and soon, we’ll be back to complaining about how busy things are and how packed our schedules can be. Personally, I look forward to those days.

Pets can help us cope with the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is the perfect time to adopt – or foster – a pet.

Anxiety levels are understandably high right now, and companion animals have been clinically proven to lower stress rates and even improve heart health.

Plus, they’re great at relieving the loneliness many of us are feeling right now because of the necessary social distancing and shelter-in-place efforts.

I’ve been working from home for three weeks now, and I rarely venture out of the house. My two cats have been constant companions, and they’re also endless sources of entertainment.

The “boys,” as I call them, are Henry and Edgar, and if you’re friends with me on social media, you’re very familiar with them both. I think they’re both minor celebrities due to my Facebook and Instagram pages, and when I talk to others, I’m almost always asked how they’re doing.

Henry is the older of the two and recently turned 6. He’s an all-black cat except for one tiny white dot at the very tip of his tail. He’s a fat and happy cat, and he spends most of his time curled up next to me. As I tell others, he supervises my work. I think he generally disapproves of anything that doesn’t involve us napping or him getting food.

Edgar – the black-and-white one – is still very much a kitten and is less than a year old. I found him on the porch in mid-2019, and he was a pitiful looking little creature. I spent several weeks luring him to me, and I finally succeeded in gaining his trust and getting him to the veterinarian. He then moved in with us, and despite Henry’s initial resistance, has become a beloved member of the household.

It wasn’t easy getting the two to socialize, but they now spend as majority of their days cuddled up to each other or chasing each other around the house. They rarely fight, and Henry seems to have settled into his new role as a big brother or adopted dad. If you can’t tell, I love them both very much.

Henry is also a rescue animal. I adopted him from one of the local animal shelters when he was a tiny kitten, and I’m glad I did. He has added much love to my life over the years.

In fact, I’ve had rescue animals for my entire life. My childhood pets included a calico cat who was found in the woods and lived with us until her death at the age of 18. My loyal boyhood dog, who died from cancer several years ago, was a rescue from an animal shelter, and we later adopted another dog from the same shelter. His name is Napoleon, and he’s elderly now but still full of energy.

It’s amazing how much joy animals can add to our lives, and we all need a little joy right now. We also need a jolt of positivity, and what’s more positive than a happy cat or dog?

If you’re on the fence about adopting, I encourage you to visit one of our local shelters and at least try fostering. Our shelters are almost always at full capacity or over their capacity, and these animals need a savior. You can make an immediate impact by fostering or adopting, and you’ll feel great about doing it.

These shelters are doing the Lord’s work, and they hold a special place in my heart. Consider helping them out, and I suspect you’ll find that you’ve helped yourself, too, in countless ways.

Have fun loving on a pet, and stay safe until we talk again.